by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Baseball players using steroids. A star football player jailed for cruelty to dogs. A basketball referee caught changing his calls to suit gamblers.
At a time when prominent sports figures are all too frequently associated with unethical behavior, it is worth recalling that sixty-five years ago this week, one of the world’s most prominent athletes used his fame for a most noble purpose. That athlete was Babe Ruth, and the issue that moved him to make a rare foray into international affairs was the Holocaust.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1942, the Allied leadership received a steady flow of reports about German massacres of tens of thousands of Jewish civilians. Information reaching the Roosevelt administration in August revealed that the killings were not random atrocities but part of a Nazi plan to systematically annihilate all of Europe’s Jews. In late November, the State Department publicly verified this news and, on December 17, the U.S. and British governments and their allies released a statement acknowledging and condemning the mass murder.
But aside from that Allied statement, there was little indication that the Roosevelt administration intended to do anything in response to the killings. There was no talk of opening America’s gates –or the gates of British-ruled Palestine– to Jewish refugees. There was no talk of taking any steps to rescue the Jews. As quickly as the mass murder had been revealed, it began to fade from the public eye.
Dorothy Thompson was determined to keep that from happening. And Babe Ruth would help her.
Thompson (1893-1961), the first American journalist to be kicked out of Nazi Germany, was once described by Time magazine one of the two most influential women in the United States, second only to Eleanor Roosevelt. In the autumn of 1942, Thompson contacted the World Jewish Congress with the novel idea of mobilizing German-Americans to speak out against the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
As a journalist, Thompson understood the news value of German-Americans protesting against Germany–especially in view of the well-publicized pro-Nazi sentiment in some segments of the German-American community. Just a few years earlier, more than 20,000 supporters of the German American Bund had filled Madison Square Garden for a pro-Hitler rally.
The World Jewish Congress agreed to foot the bill for publishing Thompson’s anti-Nazi statement as a newspaper advertisement. During the last week of December 1942, the “Christmas Declaration by men and women of German ancestry,” appeared as a full-page ad in the New York Times and nine other major daily newspapers.
“[W]e Americans of German descent raise our voices in denunciation of the Hitler policy of cold-blooded extermination of the Jews of Europe and against the barbarities committed by the Nazis against all other innocent peoples under their sway,” the declaration began. “These horrors … are, in particular, a challenge to those who, like ourselves are descendants of the Germany that once stood in the foremost ranks of civilization.” The ad went on to “utterly repudiate every thought and deed of Hitler and his Nazis,” and urged the people of Germany “to overthrow a regime which is in in the infamy of German history.”
The names of fifty prominent German-Americans adorned the advertisement. Among them were several notable academics, such as Princeton University dean Christian Gauss and University of Maine president Arthur Mauck. Leading Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, news correspondent William Shirer, and orchestra conductor Walter Damrosch appeared on the ad, as did Freda Kirchwey, editor of the political newsweekly The Nation, and Oswald Heck, speaker of the New York State Assembly.
But the signatory who was by far the best known to the American public was George Herman “Babe” Ruth.
Widely regarded as the greatest baseball player in the history of the game, Ruth, known as the Sultan of Swat, at that time held the records for the most home runs in a season (60) and most home runs in a career (714) as well as numerous other batting records. Having excelled as a pitcher before switching to the outfield and gaining fame as a hitter, the amazingly versatile Ruth even held the pitching record for the most shutouts in a season by a left-hander. Not surprisingly, Ruth was one of the first players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
By participating in this German-American protest against the Holocaust, Ruth used his powerful name to help attract public attention to the Jews’ plight. Timing is everything, both on the baseball field and beyond, and the timing of Ruth’s protest was crucial: precisely at the moment when U.S. officials were hoping to brush the Jewish refugee problem aside, Babe Ruth helped keep it front and center.
In an era when professional athletes rarely lent their names to political causes, and when most Americans –including the Roosevelt administration– took little interest in the mass murder of Europe’s Jews, Babe Ruth raised his voice in protest. Ruth’s action is all the more memorable when one contrasts it with the kind of behavior that lands athletes on the front pages all too often these days.
(Published in the Washington Times – December 25, 2007)